Gretsch Guitars – The Artful Icon

By Billy Murphy – From Vintage Guitar Magazine

Gretsch But isn’t this the very art and status of Gretsch; giving so many artists a voice? Not simply a twangy voice, or a sustaining voice or a diving Bigsby “is it out of tune or is it in tune ?” voice, but a voice for their words, tones, emotions, passion and image. Even God loves a Strat, but could Eddie Cochran have been the Eddie Cochran without a 6120? If there ever was an illustration to the adage, “The whole equals more than the sum of its parts,” it ’s a Gretsch guitar. With every blistering Setzer run, you not only hear Brian ’s talent, discipline and love, you also feel his guitar -its history and its journey; its womanly curves that Setzer none-too-coincidently hugs as his own.

But how did Gretsch get where it is on this evolutionary six-string food chain? In those beginning days, there were no marketing plans.There was no focus group research. Yet for some reason the Gretsch guitar,in its form and design, has become an icon. Who do we thank? Who do we even congratulate? Was it even a conscious result of the guitar – maker? Gretsch guitars reached their prominence in a time when the cart came before the horse, when guitars were made for the average man to play his average tune. Not like to- day, when guitars seem designed and built for that imaginary star who might someday be playing it.

To understand the revered artistic and iconic status of the Gretsch guitar, one has to first appreciate the past. Gretsch has something few guitar companies can emulate. Gretsch has history. The ideal of “Respect your elders,” has become a lost art in American culture, yet this is one of the very reasons so many artists, players and fans love Gretsch so much. Even with the models made in the 21st century, lovers of the guitar can see and feel the age of the company’s 123-year heritage. Gretsch has lived in three centuries and its age wears well.

The first truly iconic, artful Gretsch guitars showed up the same year Rhett told Scarlett, “Frankly, my darling, I don’t give a damn.” In 1939, Dorothy was skipping off to the Emerald City when Gretsch guitars appeared with all sorts of visual (and technical) peculiarities. They had the catseye teardrop sound holes that would later plaster MTV 30 times a day in George Michael’s biggest hit, “Faith.” They had the staggered art-deco “chromatic” tailpiece and bridge that suspiciously echoed the shape of that tower in Oz. Gretsch Synchromatic guitars were true pieces of art. Maybe the radical design came from the genius of Jimmy Webster,who had just started with the company. Maybe it came from Gretsch’s being bored with following Gibson’s form-and-function approach. You couldn’t imitate a better guitar, but Fred Gretsch,Sr. was tired of living in the shadows.

Fred, Sr. was truly the first, and maybe the best, inventor of Gretsch progress. Early in the century, he worked to make Gretsch American drums a true master work of design and innovation. With his ant-like colony of personnel, he developed the first warp-free drum hoop and virtually invented the throw- off snare. Later, he made Gretsch the first mass producer of drums to listen to Louie Bellson’s crazy idea of the double-bass set up (Alex Van Halen says “Thank you.”). The two worked together to break free of traditional guitar construction and sculpt Gretsch’s first gallery-worthy guitars.

Gretsch But it wouldn’t be just the shape or the gadgetry of Gretsch guitars that brought them to the throne of veneration. Gretsch might just have been the first guitar maker to inject the six-string with something cal led “vibe.” What made Myrna Loy stand out among all actresses? She wasn’t prettier or more glamorous. She just projected that extra vibe, that undeterminable undeniable. So it was, too,with the 1957 Chevy and the 1964 1/2 Mustang. Jayne Mansfield had the prettier face and the tighter body, but Marilyn had the vibe. Gretsch does too.

Transcending time, space and even music’s worst enemy, faddishness, Gretsch has never been out of sync. A Gretsch guitar is equally as beautiful in Duane Eddy’s 1950s rebel rousing or Bo Diddley’s ’60s rhythm as it is in the ugliness of ’70s glam rock or ’80s new wave . When Soundgarden forged grunge into the pop music of t he ’90s, Chris Cornell slammed it every step of the way with a plethora of reissue Sparkle Jets. They were gold and pearl and silver. They were ugly, dirty and beautiful all at the same time. Neil Young is infamous for stirring the masses with his Bigsby-harnessed Les Paul, but when he straps on his big switch-and-knob-laden White Falcon, the audience melts.

Reprint courtesy of Vintage Guitar Magazine.

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